The Complete Papaya Salad Experience, Bangkok, 26th May 2011

Papaya Salad

“He was a very valiant man who first adventured on eating oysters.”  James I

I have no idea how this lady broke her hands, but they’re like two mangled trowels.  The mits of a back street brawler.  Dropping her shoulder and planting her sandals well, she pounds at my salad in a large stone mortar, pestle gripped in the vice-like mangled mit.  She smiles across to me, the only teeth I see are covered in gold, a towel is wrapped around her head.  A lady who relishes bashing vegetables into this pungent concoction for 30 bhat a pop ($1).  A streetside alchemist of sorts, a veritable taste bomb in the making, an edible Philosophers Stone.

The papaya salad is a tricky business.  It’s all in the balance.  Subtle, yet explosive.  Sweet and sour.  Fishy and peanuty.  Any one flavour can overpower the dish and leave you reaching for a cup of iced water to wash away the pain.

Her husband flits around the small flimsy tables, comfortably 70, suitably taut limbs.  Hopping over the cracked concrete and working with the vigour of a decent carpenter, when shaving the green papaya with a mandolin.  I hear and feel the pestle slamming into the mortar with a reassuring thud.  Like a hefty Canadian chopping up some firewood.  There is the air of craftsmanship here.  A whiff of skill and care that transcends the normal dining experience.

The old chap gives my table a scrub with a red rag and plonks a small bag of sticky rice on my book (for mopping up the juice).  His face is covered with a mask, for pollution or privacy, you cannot see him smile.  You know he does, his eyes tell you.  I like his style.  They sparkle when he looks across and gives me the thumbs up.  I return the gesture and cannot help but feel like a Paul McCartney fan.

Piles of blue mini crabs lie around the base of the frangipani tree, chewed and discarded.  I’ve never liked these crabs so much.  They have a certain rawness.   The flies are loving them and so leave me alone.

Today I have eaten muesli with homemade yoghurt and chunks of tropical fruit, lumps of papaya, candied horse chestnuts in coconut cream, a bag of crisp green mango strips, several bags of sunflower seeds.  Breakfast.  Thai style.  Fruity.  I have found my first days in Bangkok are a feeding frenzy.  A snack is never far from my mouth.

Not an intelligible word has passed between us, but this lady knows how I like my papaya salad.  Lipsmackingly piquant.  POW.  Tangy like a well sucked lemon, laced with old fish, fresh lime and a hint of green chilli freshness.  What a concoction.  If you eat this, your taste buds may sing you a song.  The generous fistfuls of semi-charred peanuts are thrown in, spoons of crispy dried prawns (shockingly pink ones) and chopped runner beans and a generous pile of that shaved green papaya.  A sprinkling of palm sugar, glugs of (rancid or fragrant depending on your persuasion) fish sauce, dried chilli flakes, an anonymous yellow paste, clove of garlic, cherry tomatoes and then WHAM.  It’s there.  Bash until saturated with a startlingly pungent flavour.  A celebration for the face.   Stimulating all the senses at once.  Shock salad therapy.

I sit and happily munch.   Level with the bumper of a Bangkok pink taxi, on the next set of stools, some of the men in brown (Thai police ‘The men in brown, they know this town’ so the slogan reads).  Rows of scooters are pulling up to the kerb, taking away bags of salad.  Bangkok traffic is at a stalemate, but few horns ring out.  Bangkok is a quieter Asian city.  Organised and orderly.  After Hanoi, it’s a veritable walk in the park.

The flavours in my mouth are just right, but the lady across the road is beckoning me over.  Its looking like deep-fried corn fritters for dessert.

Heres a decent recipe: if you fancy a bash.


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